Mission Control Play Station

missioncontrol-playingWith the 45th anniversary of the first landing on the Moon (by friend of Maker Camp Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong), your little ones may want to re-live the magic of those exciting mid-century days when we owned the future, and it was out of this world. Ambitious parents may want to take on Jeff Highsmith’s Mission Control Desk to realize the space-age fantasies of their little astronauts.

habitot_rocket_ship_mission_controlOur family doesn’t have that kind of time, so when we needed a Mission Control to entertain 2000+ trick-or-treating neighbors for our “Apolloween XIII” installation last October, I remembered the wonderful upcycled hack I saw at a children’s museum in Berkeley, California, called Habitot. They cemented broken phones and keyboards onto a long table (above left, from the museum’s website), forming a hodge-podge of buttons and interaction. It was brilliant. When my own boys were toddlers, they were entertained for nearly an hour racing between this mini mission control and the adjacent rocket.

When we built and put out a similar play station on Halloween, we found that kids would hang out in our driveway for up to 45 minutes, forsaking the collection of candy on the rest of our block so that they could spin the dial on the phone or push every single button we put out for them to play with.

On November 1st, we moved Mission Control to the backyard, and I have to say my kids played with it constantly until the upcoming rainy season forced me to dismantle it. This DIY play space / space station is galactic-scale fun.

STS-128_MCC_space_station_flight_control_room 800px-Gemini_Mission_Control_-_GPN-2000-001405-Gemini5-1965

For our design, first I consulted the images I found in the historical NASA photos, as above. Mission control in Houston had keyboards and phones and screens of all kinds. Our design, too, would be a busy, cluttered and colorful environment.

I tend not to throw things of possible future usefulness away, and I brake for free boxes and yard sales, so I had a lot technojunk and toys (both working and broken) that I could add to the control panel.

missioncontrol-full

Roughly clockwise from upper left in the photo above, you can see some of the items that we added to our interface to outer space:

  1. A broken, extended keyboard by Apple (from a free box)
  2. A Casio keyboard with sound effects (a favorite of my boys)
  3. Some kind of pressure gauge I got at a yard sale
  4. Two Etch-a-sketch toys: small traditional red one and also an animated one
  5. A black Franklin language translator from the 80s or 90s
  6. A computer mouse
  7. Another busted keyboard
  8. A Magnadoodle
  9. A label-maker
  10. A tape recorder, another favorite of the boys (what is that?)
  11. An iPhone-shaped water play game with a satisfying button to push
  12. Broken weather monitor
  13. A magnetic drawing toy (the kind with a grid of divots and lots of little metal balls that can be moved with a magnet pen)
  14. A glow-in-the-dark surface
  15. Two combo locks his combinations have been forgotten
  16. A vacation lamp timer
  17. An old Soviet rotary phone that I found in a free box (score!)
  18. A Fisher-Price activity center from the 70s
  19. A noise makerWith a yellow turn the handle
  20. An old Nokia phone
  21. Another Magnadoodle
  22. A brass desk toy with a spinner for executives to make decisions
  23. Lots of odds and ends from our invention box/junk drawer, mostly colorful bottle caps and such

For the base, we scavenged a box from a nearby auto body repair shop, roughly 2′ x 4′ x 8′ in size. It probably held a replacement car bumper. We painted it white using at least two layers of house paint left over from previous tenants.

Probably the most tedious part that I added to the design (compared to the Habitot design) was to lay out all the toys and junk and cut out windows so that all of the controls were basically at the same height. While this hid the labels and made the fantasy a little easier to imagine, I don’t think it improved the quality of play enough to justify the excessive amount of time required to take this step. Cardboard does not cut as cleanly as one would like, and I’d skip this part of my process if I were to do this again.